London's Paralympics will attract more viewers, athletes and competing nations than ever before, making the Games in 2012 the "greatest" and most "groundbreaking" in history. So said senior figures in Paralympic sport last night.
Next Wednesday, the opening ceremony will signal the start of 11 days of competition, beamed to millions around the world. Almost 2.3 million of the 2.5 million tickets available have been sold and organisers are whispering that it could be the first ever sell-out.
Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, said: "We're seeing the product of the growth in the Paralympic movement. It's so exciting; London will be groundbreaking. When 45,000 more tickets were released on Thursday, we sold them within an hour and a half. There's an incredible excitement.
"People are getting to know individuals and seeing Paralympic sport as sport, which is what I've striven to achieve since I became president," Sir Philip added. "We're not talking about sport for the disabled, we're talking about great sport."
Team GB's Olympic medal haul was impressive, but the Paralympians are expected to do even better. Britain won 102 medals at the Beijing Paralympics, including 42 golds, putting them second in the medal table. UK Sport predicts that record will be beaten at these Games; it is aiming for at least 103 medals in 12 or more sports. Over the past four years, more than £49m has been poured into the Paralympic team, going to 18 different sports.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who won a total of 11 gold medals at previous Paralympics, said: "I think it will be the greatest Paralympics we've ever seen. The Games have got better each time and Seb Coe's decision to put athletes at the heart of it is what it's meant to be. Seb in the opening and closing ceremonies said the word 'Paralympics'. I don't remember that happening before. Whenever he stands up, he doesn't forget the Paralympics. I thought my job in the bid was to be there saying, 'And what about the Paralympics?', and I've never had to do that once."
Sir Philip also paid tribute to Locog, saying: "It's the first time that the International Paralympic Committee has had a really great relationship with the working committee throughout the build-up to the Games."
There will be 15 countries sending Paralympians for the first time, thanks to behind-the-scenes lobbying, a step that it is hoped will trigger an improvement in attitudes to disability beyond the Games. There will be 166 nations competing in total – 20 more than at Beijing – sending almost 4,300 athletes.
Nine of the 15 countries making their Paralympic debut are African, including some of the poorest nations in the world, such as Malawi, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other nations coming for the first time include North Korea, Antigua and Barbuda, and Brunei.
Each of these countries' athletes has the opportunity to confront prejudice at home simply by taking part. Take Demba Jarjue and Isatou Nyang. They are the first Paralympians Gambia has ever sent to the Games and have faced a daily struggle at home just to train. Minibus drivers refused to take Nyang in her wheelchair, making her late for training – and when she did get there, she did not have the proper equipment. Jarjue said: "We are facing a lot of difficulties because we are currently training with nothing. But we are still going ahead with it because we want to make [our] country proud."
Sir Philip said of the 15 debut countries: "I'm dead excited. In the new countries coming here, [the Paralympics] can change their ideas very rapidly. They may be coming from a country that doesn't get it, but they'll go on and inspire these countries to improve."
Coverage of the Paralympics will also be on a much larger scale than in any previous year. There were just 1,000 non-native journalists who stayed on to report from the Paralympic Games in Beijing, including written press, photographers and broadcasters. In London, the figure registered is already almost double that. However, the growth in interest will be felt most keenly by the British public. There will be almost 10 times as many people from the British media than in Beijing – just 52 British journalists covered China's Games, but almost 500 are expected to do so in London.
Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, said: "I'm extremely proud of the fact that we're showing the world how much we as a nation care about the Paralympic movement. It's very clearly evident to many other countries that this will be a Games that is world class."
Rehab in NHS
The president of the International Paralympic Committee said British hospitals need a "second revolution" to bring back sport in the rehabilitation of spinal patients. Britain pioneered sport as rehabilitation – it was through Dr Ludwig Guttmann's work with spinal injury patients in Stoke Mandeville hospital that the prototype for the Paralympic Games was created in 1948.
Sir Philip Craven, who represented Britain in wheelchair basketball at five Paralympics and now heads up the Paralympic movement, thinks British wards are failing to use sport to help spinal patients. "It's great bringing the Games back to where it all started," he said. "We now need a second revolution in Britain to make sure sport in rehabilitation is practised in spinal units today, as it isn't happening as it should."
Sir Philip, who suffered a spinal injury after a car accident in the 1960s, added: "In December last year, I broke a femur and spent three weeks in Southport spinal unit. I had a great convalescence, but was able to observe that sport isn't being used in the rehabilitation of spinal injuries.
"The sport rehabilitation of the 1940s and 1950s helped me get back to a full life in the 1960s. I'm very concerned this is not happening in Britain at the moment and it needs to come back. There's great medical care in the spinal units, but I don't get the impression sport is seen as a modern way of rehabilitation."
Sir Philip will press the issue in meetings with ministers after the Games. Alex Rankin, of the spinal charity Aspire, said: "There has been a decrease in sport during rehabilitation and it's a shame. Rehab times are coming down, partly because of pressures on the NHS, which means there's not much time for sport. But if you talk to people who have played sport during rehab, they say it's a huge help."
Channel 4: 'It's audacious... we're making it the heart of it'
Disability makes many people feel uncomfortable, with some pitying those who suffer and others preferring to ignore the wheelchair in the room.
Almost one in four people admit to feeling uncomfortable around disabled people, and that lack of ease is felt more acutely by the young, a ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday found. Some 22 per cent of people feel uncomfortable around those with disabilities, with 27 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds feeling uncomfortable, compared with 19 per cent of those aged 65 and over.
Such sensitivities were confronted head-on when Channel 4 television conceived the biggest advertising campaign in their history to promote their coverage of the Paralympics. The promotion, which has been universally praised, has even prompted viewers to call the broadcaster to say it changed their perception of disability.
Tom Tagholm, 39, creative director of 4Creative, who wrote and directed the "Meet the Superhumans" campaign, said: "The thinking, tone and attitude was the first thing."
He had seen a picture his art director had given him of two blind footballers, one spitting at the other, and was influenced on the first day of the shoot by two disabled swimmers competing in Sheffield. "They were both in wheelchairs, both from different nations, and it was a little awkward as they passed in the doorway. One bumped the other chair just slightly, made no eye contact and moved on. There was no sense of helping each other out, more a sense of 'I'm going to beat you and mess with your mind'. It's about understanding the psychology of a sportsperson, not a disabled person. It's a really simple idea, but one that hasn't been done before. These guys care about shearing a 10th off their time. The tragedy is if they don't qualify."
The campaign has also featured the "Thanks for the warm-up" outdoor poster campaign. The line came from Claire Watson, the youngest member of Channel 4's creative team. "It's an audacious, Channel 4 approach. We're not tip-toeing round the Olympics, but making it the heart of it," Tagholm said.
The broadcasting of the Paralympics has been a major investment. Alongside sports presenters such as Clare Balding and Jonathan Edwards, half of the presenters of the Paralympics will be disabled. The broadcaster spent £500,000 training new presenters, including Martin Dougan, 25, a former carpenter from Glasgow who has cerebral palsy and has used a wheelchair since he was 13. Dougan, who captained Scotland's basketball team last year, will be broadcasting from GB House, as athletes return to their families. "It's going to be busy – and live," he said.